On Sept. 17, the 220th anniversary of the US Constitution, I had the great privilege to talk to two separate fourth-grade classes at Summit Elementary, the school our son Spencer attends in suburban Denver. I was impressed there was so much fanfare scheduled. It renewed my hope that perhaps our heritage has not been lost on the young or at least not on the school. My focus was on the Constitution’s basic principles (underlain by the Declaration of Independence) that all men are created equal and that we therefore have the unalienable right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
I began by asking the students, "What is liberty?" I received some creative answers: we are to treat each other with respect, we live in a country where we say a pledge, liberty it is a statue or it is a bell, and finally, it is freedom.
It took a while but the concept of Freedom is where I was headed with the discussion. To get there I wanted to lay a foundation of basic Western Civilization principles as well as history. So where does one start with fourth-graders? With the idea of Natural Law and John Locke, of course.
I confessed to the kids, I really didn’t hear about Natural Law and John Locke until I was in college! Where had I been? But we dove into the idea that there are a set of laws that are natural to mankind – through reason and intellect we can understand these principles to be true.
One of the most important laws John Locke spoke about in his famous writing “Second Treatise of Government” is the idea of all men are created equal and thus
liberty is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.
What a big concept! We then talked about liberty as freedom within constraints. Sometimes it is easier to define something when you know what it is not. Kids understand “no” sometimes better than “yes,” so we started with what liberty is not. It is not freedom without rules, for that would be chaos. I cannot pick your pocket; I may be free to pick your pocket, but I know that would be wrong and if I am caught, I will be punished. They understood that. I was able then to link the concept of liberty to the Golden Rule.
But when I asked them who knows what the Golden Rule is, only one child and the teacher raised their hands! What an opportunity to talk about a simple Natural Law! The concept of being nice to someone because you want to be treated nicely is one of the basic components of Western Civilization and Liberty.
So in five minutes, with the understanding of a fourth-grader, I talked about Western Civilization. How privileged we are to live in the United States! Through our Founding Fathers these concepts (life, liberty, happiness) have distilled themselves over time -- and through the filters of religion, tyranny, and war our nation was born.
Through Western Civilization we have propagated the great "self-evident truth" we hold dear: all men are created equal.
Wow! You could have heard a pin drop when I told of other countries where men and women are not assumed equal. I spoke briefly of India and the Dalits; I spoke of religions of the Middle East and how women are forbidden to get an education.
These children understood equality of personhood is a Natural Law, but they didn’t know other countries don’t believe this. They do not know how blessed we are to live in a country where that assumptive law is in our constitution.
I was able also to touch on the difference between equality of personhood and equality of outcome and how it is not the government’s responsibility to make me happy but to get out of my way as I make myself happy!
As I read from the founding documents, I was blessed to see their eyes open up to words they may have never heard, like “And for support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”!
As a parent I take for granted that the things I teach my son about our American heritage and belief are much the same as what other parents are teaching their children. I will no longer take that for granted. As I stand at the bus stop on school mornings, I will look for ways in my normal conversation with the children to bring out the principles of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. I will ask them basic facts about our country and challenge them as they go throughout their day to see those truths played out.
If we are to preserve our uniquely American heritage, a heritage for which those before us (and those after us – I hope) will indeed pledge their life, fortunes and sacred honor, we must tell this generation: Are you investing in your own knowledge of American history? Are you willing to share your insights with the children in your neighborhood? If you don’t, who will?
NOW TEST YOURSELF...
Here is a short quiz I left with the students that day, hoping the teachers would use it to foster discussion. How well would you do?
1- What is liberty? a) A statue in New York b) A bell in Philadelphia c) A principle of freedom within constraints d) A principle of government should make me happy
2- Who was John Locke? a) An English philosopher who wrote about government and social contracts b) A signer of the Constitution c) A man who believed you should not be concerned with anybody but yourself d) A man who said liberty allows me to do anything that makes me happy
3- Who penned the Declaration of Independence? a) George Washington b) George Bush c) John Hancock d) Thomas Jefferson
4-What does the Golden Rule say? a) I can treat you different than me b) If you are born poor you will always be poor c) I can pursue anything I want d) I should treat you as I want to be treated
5- What major concept is part of Western Civilization? a) The United States is the best country b) All men are created equal c) Government supplies my needs d) All laws are good laws
6- Who said, “give me liberty or give me death?” a) Paul Revere b) Abraham Lincoln c) Thomas Jefferson d) Patrick Henry
7- Write your definition of Liberty.